How to Phase Out Junk Food

            A lot of us have good intentions with our diets, but find it hard to break the habit of junk food. In fact, at a UC San Francisco symposium on food and addiction, keynote speaker Dr. Ashley Gearhardt shared some of her research “exploring the similarities between addictive and eating behaviors using neuroimaging, behavioral phenotyping, and measurement development.” Additionally, Dr. Gearhardt’s work “focuses on how the food environment, marketing, product placements may lead potentially addictive foods to have widespread clinical and public health consequences.”[1] In her study, “Neural Correlates of Food Addiction”, Dr. Gearhardt found “food and drug use both result in dopamine release in mesolimbic regions and the degree of release correlates with subjective reward from both food and drug use. Similar patterns of brain activation in response to food and drug cues have also been found. Individuals with vs without substance dependence show greater activation in brain regions that encode the reward value of stimuli (eg, the orbitofrontal cortex [OFC], amygdala, insula, striatum, anterior cingulate cortex [ACC], and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [DLPFC]), and greater dopamine release in the dorsal striatum in response to drug cues.”[2]

            If our brains can literally become addicted to junk food, how do we kick the habit in our efforts to create healthier lifestyles? Below, check out these tips for eliminating unhealthy foods from your diet (but be sure to talk to your physician before starting any new diet or exercise routine):

●     Identify your triggers. Oftentimes, we reach for junk food when we’re feeling stressed or tired. Try to identify the times when you’re most likely to reach for junk food; awareness can help you prepare for those times so you can put a plan in place and avoid junk food.

●     Plan your meals. If your menu is set, you will be less likely to make unhealthy choices. “Try to follow the new federal dietary guidelines, which recommend a ‘healthy eating pattern’ with limited added sugar and saturated fat, less salt, and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. ‘Not all foods are created equally,’ said Dr. Ashley Gearhardt. ‘You don’t see people binging on apples.’”[3]

●     Don’t eliminate everything delicious from your diet. Removing junk food from your diet does not mean you have to eat bland, tasteless food. Find other foods you enjoy that are healthier and can be included in your meal plan.

●     Reduce your added sugar intake, especially in beverages. “The average amount of added sugar in the American diet is more than 20 teaspoons per day...Since about half of this sugar comes in the form of beverages, we have to rethink our beverage choices. Water should be the beverage of choice.”

●     Go easy on yourself. Making a big change to cut out junk food is going to take time and you might slip up along the way. That is okay! Be gentle with yourself; progress is rarely a straight line and it is important to embrace the journey.


            What are some of your favorite ways to reduce your intake of junk food? Let us know in the comments!

[1] Schilf, Samantha. “SSEW Soundbites: Dr. Ashley Gearhardt Talks Food & Addiction, Early Childhood Exposure & Neuroadaptation.” COAST/SSEW Symposium, COAST/SSEW Symposium, 17 Dec. 2016,

[2] Gearhardt AN, Yokum S, Orr PT, Stice E, Corbin WR, Brownell KD. Neural Correlates of Food Addiction. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(8):808–816. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.32

[3] Rosenberg, Alec. “How to Break the Junk Food Habit.” University of California, 14 Dec. 2016,

Food, Health, LifeRichard Martin